Mining the past for game ideas

PAX Prime 2011: Geeknight podcast hosts take a look at game mechanics worth revisiting from Outlaw, Spy vs. Spy, Sopwith, Aerobiz Supersonic, Rampart, Metal Marines.

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Who was there: Geeknights' Brandon DeCoster and Scott Rubin held forth at PAX Prime 2011 to talk about what designers can learn from games lost to time.

Outlaw may look simplistic, but its gameplay is surprisingly entertaining.

What they talked about: DeCoster and Rubin began their panel by referencing Dan Simmons' novel Hyperion, and a speech made therein. The far-future tale includes a speech by a character who is essentially the president of the galaxy. Afterward, the president is approached and praised on the speech, but the character says that it was actually stolen from long-forgotten leaders like Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.

DeCoster and Rubin feel the game industry can learn from this story. They said that many aspiring designers are too occupied with creating bold, innovative ideas, when there are untapped mechanics from games gone by that hold excellent ideas that can be further fleshed out.

The first game they showed was Outlaw, which Atari originally released for arcades in 1976 and then brought to the Atari 2600 in 1978. The arcade original was first designed as a light-gun game, and Atari charged David Crane (who went on to cofound Activision and create Pitfall) with simply porting this game. Instead, Crane lifted the design of Midway's Gunfight, pitting two cowboys on opposite sides of the screen against each other.

The idea of Outlaw is that it's a two-player competitive game and the goal is to shoot the other cowboy 10 times. Players can shoot up, down, and straight, and bullets can also ricochet off walls. Outlaw had several modes, including ones where ammo is limited and where an object in the middle of the playfield is indestructible, destructible, or mobile.

DeCoster and Rubin advocated the beauty of this game's simplicity, in that it is a direct competition game with simple rules. This game offers an alternative take on the fighting genre, one that isn't so reliant on the execution that's seen in modern fighting games. It is also a highly psychological competitive game that relies on moderation, timing, and risk.

The next game shown off was Spy vs. Spy, which was released in the US by First Star Software in 1988. Like Outlaw, Spy vs. Spy is a direct versus game, where players have to collect four items and escape a building without being killed by the opposing spy and his traps. Only one item can be carried at a time until a player has found the briefcase, so it becomes a question of hiding found items while also setting traps to defend them, and then remembering where those items and traps are going forward.

What's interesting about Spy vs. Spy is that the game relies on players to look at what the other spy is doing, which creates a situation where they must hide the four objects in plain sight. Though the game's original design is highly problematic, it is worth revisiting due to its unique take on the versus puzzle game genre, the duo said, comparing it to a hide-and-seek-style game.

Next up, DeCoster and Rubin showed off Sopwith. The game, which was essentially a Choplifter clone, was developed in 1984 by a company called BMB Compuscience, and it was given away for free to promote their Ethernet competitor, ImagineNet. Sopwith was playable via local area network, which was quite innovative at the time.

DeCoster and Rubin took this opportunity to rail against developers for removing LAN functionality from games. The two said that it's a shame that LAN is largely being phased out due to piracy concerns, because this type of connected gameplay offers a number of advantages over online multiplayer. Namely, latency becomes a serious issue in online multiplayer, and developing network code is incredibly difficult for most developers. Plus, players simply miss out on the fun of playing a game in the same room with one another.

Sopwith could use a fairly straight update, the two said, with the game's mechanics given a graphical update and massive LAN support. The two posited a scenario in which the game featured matches of 10-versus-10, or better, four teams that each had 10 players.

Koei's Aerobiz Supersonic is the next game DeCoster and Rubin said that designers should draw inspiration from, largely due to its competitive simulation game mechanics. At its core, the game sees players serving as CEO of a major international airline. The goal is to secure a worldwide monopoly, and tactics involve cutthroat business dealings and shrewd business decisions.

The beauty of this game is that players compete right on top of one another. For instance, if one player seeks to establish a flight line from London to New York, another player can come in and offer the same flight for next to nothing, all for the purpose of driving the other person out of business. It would be like if SimCity let players build competing cities right next to each other, vying for residents and companies. The two also pointed out how novel it is for players to be in close-quarters competition straight from the beginning of the game.

Namco's Metal Marines is the next game the two showed. Currently available on Nintendo's Virtual Console, Metal Marines is a strategy game that operates outside of the Warcraft tradition. The single-player game posits a scenario in which players serve as a general in space. While they're away, Earth is conquered, and players must invade the planet to take it back. To do so, players set up on an island, establishing bases, turrets, and a standing metal marine army.

Players gain energy and money automatically, instead of having to send out workers to collect these resources, and they can be spent to fortify their bases and build offensive capabilities. The opposition maintains its own island fortress that is hidden to players. Attacking plays out a bit like in Minesweeper, where players pick a spot on the enemy island and then spend energy to deploy missiles and their army, uncovering installations as they go.

Rampart isn't exactly an obscure old game, but it is one that has had its mechanics overlooked. A strategy action game at its core, Rampart involves walling off a fortress and then placing cannons within the walls. There is then a round where players fire their cannons at the enemy to punch holes in those fortifications. Then, a rebuilding phase that draws heavily from Tetris ensues, and players attempt to both repair their walls and increase their territory under a time constraint. If the perimeter wall isn't fully rebuilt, it's game over.

What's interesting about this game, DeCoster and Rubin said, is that it has two completely separate gameplay types, defense and attack, that are combined into one. Nowadays, they said, companies pour their full budget into making, say, just a fighting game or just a role-playing game. The two said that it would be interesting to have an action RPG in which the action sequences played out like a fighting game.

Quote: "Look at any old game, take out all the stuff that's not fun, and use all the stuff that is fun, and you'll probably make a great game."--Brandon DeCoster.

Takeaway: DeCoster and Rubin believe that the game industry has uncovered any number of paths that game genres can travel down. However, up to this point, developers are using only a handful of these available paths. That's a shame, they believe, because there are plenty of hidden gems that are worth uncovering and improving upon.

Discussion

34 comments
Gravity_Slave
Gravity_Slave

"Mining the past for game ideas" Worst idea EVER. Doesn't anyone learn? Havent you seen enough crappy Hollywood remakes? Gaming is no different. Has the Well of Creativity really run that dry in the gaming industry that you need to rip ideas from older and possibly worse games?? Be original.

Cowboy-Bebop
Cowboy-Bebop

WHY! WHY! is Spy vs Spy 1 - 3 not on XBox Live, PSN and WiiWare? WHY!!! And if they were and they were successful they could go back and finish and release 4. Hands down some of the best games EVER for that time period and would be a great addition to modern live games.

Megavideogamer
Megavideogamer

This is Natural to anyone who was alive during the 2nd generation of videogames 1977. And played Atari 2600 which is extremely primitive and archiac by 2011 videogame standards. But the Atari 2600 did have some games that were playable and fun. The graphics/sound may be "4bit" even though the atari was actually an 8-bit computer. But the Atari 2600 was the first concept to catch on. Even thought the Magnovox Odeysse was the first home videogame console system released way back in 1972. Atari was the first videogame company popular enough to be able to cause a videogame crash way back in 1983. So limited, "bad" graphics/sound/playable videogames were state of the art in 1977. There was enough that Atari did right in order that the Videogame crash happened. enough of the early games were fun enough to have the rough draft of the videogame industry. Generations 1 & 2 So games such as outlaw and spy vs spy were fun. I actually did play Spy vs Spy it was fun. For it's time. In 2011 it is a wonder that the home videogame industry has lasted this long 39years and counting. But Atari once was the king of the home videogame consoles. Before Nintendo Sony and Microsoft. And others like Sega, SNK etc. So some of the early ideas from the pre-crash era might be worth re-visiting today. But this is also a bad sign since the next videogame crash will be caused by lack of new ideas. So this is a sign the next videogame crash is coming. Enough

bostadskontrakt
bostadskontrakt

Ha ha Spy vs Spy. Thanks for explaining that game to me finally, I never understood what to do back then since there were hardly any manuals around lol

kickrockser
kickrockser

I used to have a Colecovision with an Atari 2600 adaptor. Here are some other games that could be looked upon for inspiration: Venture (Coleco), Tarzan (Coleco), Smurfs Escape From Gargamel’s Castle (Coleco), Ghostbusters (Atari), Grog’s Revenge Coleco), and Crystal Castle (Atari). There are much more, but these were some of my favorites.

lapiza
lapiza

@freedomspopular thats an unforunate truth, but i can always hope

Carlos161
Carlos161

I'm so used to recent games. I think I wouldn't enjoy old ones even if they were the best of the best when they were released. Just my opinion. I've played Shenmue and liked but the article refers to older games that I don't even know. I've only entered the gaming universe for real three years ago by the way. This last part was for justify my ignorance

ydnarrewop
ydnarrewop

They should bring back Shadowrun! :D

Freezezzy
Freezezzy

Something I think they should bring back from the past is the ability of developers to create complete games, and then to sell those games as one complete product, rather than selling them in parts as DLC.

freedomspopular
freedomspopular

@hellpolice and lapiza Developers are gonna make whatever sells the most. So if it's simple, dumbed-down FPSs that sell, that's what they're gonna make.

GGCrew_basic
GGCrew_basic

I'd love to play an updated version of Spy vs Spy!

TheGreatmars
TheGreatmars

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

TheGreatmars
TheGreatmars

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Sohereiam
Sohereiam

That was lamest quote I ever heard. First, what make a story good is not hero its the villain, or the flaws of the hero, the not fun part is what the fun parts needs to exalted.

lapiza
lapiza

minecraft and other indie games such as amnesia have already proved you don't need games with flashy graphics and explosions to interest the player, i'm sick of b-grade movie equivilent games with crap stories and ,sub-par, dumbed down gameplay; the only real good thing being the marketing and hype

hellpolice
hellpolice

This is greatly needed and maybe slow down the runaway train that is the fps genre for a chance, then again one can look for games made by indie devs there is bound to be something original there, look how Minecraft became a phenomenon and they used obsolete tech to do it.

alexender00
alexender00

I miss Aerobiz... I mean, I do still have it but it too old to be believable anymore... According to the game, right about now we should all mostly only fly with supersonic jets or hyper jumbos...

Azghouls
Azghouls

Spy Vs Spy was indeed an excellent game. However the release date wasn't 1988 - It was 1984.

Hatemachine25
Hatemachine25

Wouldn't mind a new Double dragon, or even a revisit to simple stuff like KLAX.

Red_Shifter
Red_Shifter

@paradosis, publishers have to appeal to the Xbox Live generation. Instead of remaking great games and cleaning them up, you find games "inspired" by past great games while usually removing most of what makes those games unique or engaging. And if that doesn't work, it's off to FPS land with it.

wasakawaka
wasakawaka

@spurner. That was exactly the game I was thinking of when reading this article. :)

Paradosis
Paradosis

Instead of taking inspiration from aerobiz supersonic, why not actually make a new version of it? Is that too much to hope for? Am I the only business strategy geek left?

Spurner
Spurner

Remember Adventure? Being a small square armed with his trusty arrow symbol chasing down dragons was pure, simple fun.

ANUBISZER0
ANUBISZER0

I wouldn't be against a Final Fantasy VII Remake.

moviequest14
moviequest14

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

moviequest14
moviequest14

What I want to see most is games converting back to a more simple form...while I do enjoy Netflix and internet on current gaming consoles I miss the simplicity of even last generation of ''put in a game and play!'' that ps2,xbox,and gamecube offered.That and (for the most part) games that didn't have to try for ''the shock factor'' and instead tried at quality instead of flash.IMHO the best option would be a hyrbrid of modern gaming (high technology and features) with the simplicity of past gaming (pick up and play basics and pure substance and MOST IMPORTANTLY is to lose all thew strife and struggle brought in with gaming stereo-types...there used to not be ''casual'',''hardcore'',''mature'',''kiddyish'',''shovelware'',or the like of hatred terms spread about.In order for gaming to get back to its old self we need to get rid of all these terms and just have one gamer....anyone that likes games,if companies,analysts,producers,and media stops seeing types but sees one people they will not have to worry about ''niche-selling'' or ''select interest''....they will just be selling to all gamers.

Sirbobislost
Sirbobislost

METAL MARINES!!!!! man i havnt played that game in years would be interesting to see what they tried to do with it @MEDzZ3RO yes! why they havnt used it already baffles me the closest thing to a next gen streets of rage was the bouncer on the PS2

armodillo17
armodillo17

@servb0ts I think it would be nostalgia if they were overlooking the faults of the old games, but they are doing the exact opposite. They are looking for only the parts that were genuinely fun.

NColdhardt
NColdhardt

I think that this is a terrific idea. No remakes, just taking the amazing concepts and parts from certain games and combining them together.

MEDzZ3RO
MEDzZ3RO

Streets Of Rage is something worth revisiting, I'd still like to see a Streets Of Rage 4 but it has to remain in 2D, 2.5D could work. Nobody should bother if it turns out like the Golden Axe reboot...